Daniel Kelly spent four years in pro scouting with the New York Jets. He is the published author of the book “Whatever It Takes,” the story of a fan making it into the NFL.
In a 2022 NFL Draft class lean on first-round talent at quarterback, I pegged Liberty’s Malik Willis as my QB1. On game film, I spotted major flaws — he avoided throwing in the middle of the field, for one — but he had a dynamic dual-threat vibe that intrigued me.
In a draft that featured only one first-round QB (Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett), the Titans selected Willis in the third round. In his first preseason, he solidified himself as Ryan Tannehill’s backup, starting three games and flashing the kind of talent that initially drew me to him. His stats weren’t great (28-of-51 for 318 yards, two TDs and one interception), but he flashed potential.
Willis’ preseason debut against the Baltimore Ravens even caught the eye of former NFL MVP QB Lamar Jackson.
“He did that little spin roll to the left and went crazy,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘I like him. I like him a lot.’ … He’s going to be good in the league.”
Willis also impressed NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger, who played 13 years as an offensive lineman in the NFL. He ranked Willis as his top preseason rookie.
Then Willis came crashing to earth in the regular season.
Starting three regular-season games for an injured Tannehill, he completed 31-of-61 passes (50.8 percent) with zero TD passes and three interceptions. Tennessee won his first start against the Houston Texans, took the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs into overtime and lost a rematch against the Texans.
By the final two games of the regular season, things had gone so far south for Willis that Titans head coach Mike Vrabel started recently-signed journeyman Josh Dobbs instead.
Although faith in Willis seemingly cratered at the end of last season, game film study showed subtle improvement from his first start to his last. He went from looking overwhelmed to appearing more comfortable leading the offense.
In his first start against Houston, he held the ball too long, but in the rematch two months later (despite throwing two interceptions and having three passes disrupted), he made quicker passing decisions.
In 2023 preseason games against Chicago and Minnesota, he clearly looked more comfortable than last season. He was especially better throwing in the intermediate-route level (11- to 19-yard range). Not perfect, but sharper. In the preseason, he has completed 26-of-42 passes (61.9 percent) for 274 yards, one TD, two interceptions and rushed for 113 yards.